Monsanto Eats Patent Office Crow?

Small farmers have long been at odds with the agricultural giant Monsanto, one of the biggest producers of genetically engineered seeds in the world. The company has been aggressive in its pursuit of farmers who save and replant its seeds without paying the required (steep) “technology fee.” But now the company is being taken to task for its bullying ways, the nonprofit patent watchdog PUBPAT reports (via the Ethicurean). According to the group,

[T]he United States Patent and Trademark Office has rejected four key Monsanto patents related to genetically modified crops that PUBPAT challenged last year because the agricultural giant is using them to harass, intimidate, sue—and in some cases literally bankrupt—American farmers. In its Office Actions rejecting each of the patents, the USPTO held that evidence submitted by PUBPAT, in addition to other prior art located by the Patent Office’s Examiners, showed that Monsanto was not entitled to any of the patents.

Booya, agribusiness! Finally these farmers will be free to save seeds—which is, as PUBPAT puts it, “something farmers have done since the beginning of time.” But wait. As Ethicurean commenter Ineluctable Moe points out, it’s not that big a victory:

First, the USPTO didn’t reject the patents on the grounds that Monsanto was using them to harass or intimidate farmers; they were rejected because only original, non-obvious inventions are patentable, and these patents are derivative of earlier research performed by others. PUBPAT, the public interest watchdog group that filed to have the patents reexamined, did so because they considered Monsanto to be harassing farmers—but the USPTO didn’t take that position in rejecting the patents. This is one reason why I doubt Monsanto will have to compensate anyone for their misbehavior.

Second, most patents have a life of 17 years from the issue date. These particular Monsanto patents were all issued between 1992 and 1994 … so they will start expiring just a couple of years from now anyway. PUBPAT has sped up the process somewhat, which is wonderful, but I doubt that this is a truly horrible day for Monsanto, rather than just remarkably inconvenient.

True that, but either way it sounds like it’s going to become easier for small farmers to use Monsanto seeds. This may be helpful for upping their yields, which is ostensibly great for the farmers, but for some anti-GMO types it may further shatter the myth that locally grown food from small family farms is a better choice than organics (which, for the moment, are still GM-free).

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